Climate Change Threatens Maldives

climate, copenhagen, mark phillips, maldives
Mark Phillips, shoulder deep in the sea, in the Maldives.

They look like strings of pearls floating in a crystal clear ocean, but the expression "trouble in paradise" could have been invented for the Maldives. CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports that the Maldives is more than 350,000 people - may be the first to feel the climate change pain. People whose lives have always depended on the sea, but who now live in fear that predicted sea level rise - caused by global warming - will simply wipe their country off the map.

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Maldives Blog by Mark Phillips

The president of the Maldives is famous for being blunt.

"We've had it. There's no debate, there's no question," said Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed. "If it's the upper limits, we've really had it."

No place in the Maldives is higher than seven feet ten inches above sea level. Eighty percent of the land lies three feet or less above the waves.
And sea levels are predicted to rise by as much as 23 inches this century according to the UN's Climate Change Panel. Other more recent studies have warned the world's oceans may rise even higher.

Official Website of President Mohamed Nasheed
Maldives Tourism Website

Phillips demonstrated the possible levels that the water could reach. The low end of the predicted sea level rise would mean the water level would reach his waist. The more dire predictions would mean it reaches his neck -- or worst of all, underwater entirely.

That is why President Nasheed decided to make as big a splash as possible to publicize the threat. He held a cabinet meeting under water.

"Well that's the bottom line isn't it - under water," Nasheed said. "That's where we will end up. In many senses that might be where we will be having our cabinet meetings in the future."

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Maldives Cabinet to Meet on Sea Floor

The Maldives have already had a taste of disaster. The 2004 tsunami swept over these islands killing close to a hundred people.

But what happens to people here if the oceans rise up and stay -- not to mention to the billion or so others around the world also living in low-lying countries?

Here, they call it Plan B: a fund to transplant the entire population "somewhere" - a new ark. India, Sri Lanka and even Australia have been mentioned.

"We want to be in a situation where we have some of our own money if we become climate refugees. Some might become boat people. A lot of us will die," Nasheed said. "Whoever survives might be floating somewhere. We really are talking about our own grandchildren. And if you cannot provide for them, there's really very little point of having a government now."

"In fact, the effects of climate change are already being felt. Marine biologists say an El Nino-style warming of the seas a decade ago caused a mass kill off of the coral reefs that protect the islands.

"If the reefs are not healthy any more they can't sustainably produce more sand so eventually you will end up with less and less sand around the beaches of the islands," said marine biologist Anke Hofmeister of Six Senses resorts.

"And less and less island," said Phillips.

"More erosions, yup," Hofmeister continued. "And in this way the Maldives could be under threat."

"Some resorts here are already trying to cut their own carbon output in line with President Nasheed's call for the country to set an example by becoming carbon neutral by the year 2020.

But for a place so dependent on tourists flying in from thousand of miles away, and travelling to the outlying resorts by sea-plane, carbon neutrality is but a dream at this stage.

"Enjoy it while you can," Hofmeister said. "Come to the Maldives while you still can, while they're still there."

The Maldives have become the canary in the global warming coalmine.

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  • Mark Phillips, CBS News London correspondent
    Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent based in London.